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Great Landscapes

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The Ideas Library

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The studio is traditionally thought of as the place where portraits are ‘created’. Photographers have full control in the studio – over the space, the light and also the subject. Everything is focused on producing a wonderful likeness of the sitter. However, flash wasn’t originally available. Flash in the very early days (being a mound of unpredictable powder on a portable tray) was challenging and instead studio photographers used constant tungsten or incandescent lights – often called hot lights. The famous Hollywood movie portraits of the 1930s and later are thought of as a Golden Age of portraiture because of the style and effect produced by these hot lights.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that ‘strobe’ or flash lighting became more acceptable - and then the norm. However, early flash units relied on some pretty scary circuitry and you had to be very careful not to fry yourself! And with the relatively slow ISO speeds of many favourite portraiture film stocks, you needed quite a bit of power to make things happen.

With the advent of digital photography, the world has changed again and flash is perhaps a little out of favour with the masses, the main reason being the masses don’t know how to use it and it requires you to use extra equipment in addition to your smartphone! This is a pity because in just the same way that photography was revolutionised with digital technology, so has flash lighting been streamlined and improved. The flash units themselves are generally much smaller, they can put out lots of power without much hardware and using them can be fully integrated with your camera if you wish. Even better, with faster lenses and higher ISO settings on cameras, you don’t need as much power for flash photography, certainly not when it comes to portraiture.

Interestingly, one of the reasons portrait photographers love studio flash equipment is because of the huge range of lightshapers available. We touched on this a couple of issues ago when we quickly introduced studio portraiture. It’s not so much the burst of flash that’s important, rather the quality of light that is pushed through or across the lightshaper. You can produce harsh, angular light or soft, empathetic light as you choose.

With multiple flash lights, you can design a surround-sound lighting experience to record and reveal your subject. And you don’t even need to fire the flash – often there’s enough light from the ‘modelling lamp’ that sits inside the head with the flash tube to shoot by. So, studio flash can be a lot of fun. It can also be taken out on location or even outside if you want to. But there are a few things that can be useful to know and understand before you hire or buy your first studio flash outfit.

Get all the information you need in the current issue of Better Photography - visit